Nowtopia: Strategic Exodus?
Neil Smith (1984) draws out the tendencies of capital both to
differentiate while simultaneously equalizing or leveling certain aspects
of life. We are concerned here with the violence inherent in a central
force of capital’s equalization—the “universalization of the wage–
labour relation” which is instigated by “the leveling of pre-capitalist
modes of production to the plain of capital” (1984:114).
As Marx observed . . . the individual worker is transformed into a
“crippled monstrosity”; the “Juggernaut of capital”, to use Marx’s
phrase, drags workers down to a common level, and as far as the
individual is concerned makes a “specialty of the absence of all
development”. Human nature is leveled downward (Smith 1984:115).
However, despite the clear emphasis on the leveling effects of capital
in terms of the wage relation particularly, many have emphasized
the differences in Marx’s ontology of labor, particularly that between
productive and unproductive labor, in order to deepen exclusions and
divisions between the more and less revolutionary parts of the working
class. Unproductive labor has been used pejoratively by orthodox
Marxists to dismiss a wide variety of workers as politically irrelevant
because they do not produce surplus value directly. This old orthodoxy
has percolated into the current era among the descendents of ThirdWorldist and identitarian movements. In a different move with a similar
outcome, many contemporary social activists tend to dismiss so-called
“middle class” or more affluent wage workers as political non-entities,
because they appear as direct beneficiaries and active supporters of an
oppressive social system.
David Harvie (2007:27) has suggested a different approach which is
If we understand capital as the separating of worker and capital (or
doing and done), and if productive labor is that which produces capital,
then we can understand productive labor as those human activities
which reproduce this separation and produce it on an expanded
Whereas for most people, “unproductive labor” refers to inefficiency,
or maybe to deliberate slacking, Harvie reclaims this concept to refer to
work that is carried out primarily for practical purposes, purposes that
are not those of capital—that is, what we have called nowtopian and
what we might also call activities responding to localized social need.
Unlike productive labor, unproductive labor can involve the subjective
capacities of the worker to decide for herself what work is actually worth
doing. In fact, Harvie (2007:161) concludes:
the working class (or better, humanity) struggles to be unproductive,
to free its activities from value, to go beyond value . . . that worker who
is able to reclaim from the boss minutes, hours, days of her life, that
2010 The Authors
C 2010 Editorial Board of Antipode.